Lindsey Vonn, I am not. My family may relish every minute on the slopes, but I’m a different kind of intrepid. I get my adrenaline rush from fearlessly exploring nearby art galleries, scouring the shelves of boutiques, and discovering inventive treatments in spas around town. While my clan schusses and shreds its way around the mountain, I’m off experiencing the heights of menus at bistros and buying up ingenious crafts by local artisans.
To be sure, Maine’s mountain towns have leveled up their lifestyle and cultural offerings in recent years, rendering this winter an ideal time to hop in the car to explore the nonski diversions of Saddleback, Sunday River, or Sugarloaf—whether it’s between runs, après ski, or in lieu of skiing altogether.
Let’s start off in that heavyweight among the state’s ski hubs, Sunday River. Nestled among the stately homes in Bethel’s historic village, you’ll find The Philbrook Place, an 1870s Victorian house and gigantic barn housing a collection of shops. “We all have our own businesses, yet we don’t compete,” says Sara Hemeon, owner of Elements Art Gallery. Next door sits a second gallery, The Barn Collection, owned by Amy Halstead. Both Sara and Amy pack their spaces with everything from antique water baskets and jewelry to paintings and steampunk sculpture. It’s easy to spend hours here. “Most people come to the area for outdoor recreation,” says Amy. “But we also want folks to see the work of all these incredibly talented artists from the region.”
That sentiment extends across the building to Bethel Toys & Trendz, peddler of playful and hand-carved masterpieces made by local legend Phil McCrillis (he plays Santa in the annual holiday parade). His elaborate woodcarvings—dinosaurs, cribbage boards, and the like—got him named Artist of Honor in 2019 by the town. Phil also spent three decades as a celebrated gemstone miner and cutter before pivoting to woodwork. He’s even honored at the nearby Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, a literal treasure trove celebrating the state’s geological history across 15,000 square feet of rock and mineral collections. And when you’re done gawking at its exhibits, you can score your own handmade baubles spotlighting Maine gems in the museum shop—like tourmaline mosaic earrings and aquamarine cuff bracelets.
Up on the mountain (2,100 feet up, to be exact), things are getting equally creative at Sunday River Resort. Instead of the usual ho-hum cafeteria-style fare on the slopes, chef Harding Lee Smith and his wife, Sarah, have conjured up a seriously innovative eatery in The Mountain Room. Anchored by a concrete-and-walnut bar with a killer view, it serves ambitious dishes like dry-aged duck breast with green onion chermoula and fig. “People are surprised when they walk in and find high-quality food on a mountain,” says Harding. “A lot of them aren’t even skiing—they just ride the Chondola up to eat.” Then there’s The Last Run, the couple’s other sleek spot at the bottom of the mountain. There, guests are welcomed into both outdoor igloos and indoor seating, where they savor bowls of smoky hot and sour soup and roasted oysters with fried-egg mayo and caviar.
From there, it’s a quick hop to The Jordan Hotel, home to Aster & Birch boutique. “Everything in the space is hand-picked,” says Darcy Lambert, vice president of skier services. There’s high-end athleisure by prAna and Krimson Klover, flowy dresses, cashmere beanies, and men’s accessories by Whiskey Leatherworks. “Most people come in to shop our latest stock and then head to Jordan Spa next door,” says Darcy. Once ensconced there, they indulge in rituals like the Mountain Serenity Body Treatment—a 90-minute Swedish massage with full-body exfoliation. “Guests leave feeling soft, hydrated, and extremely relaxed,” says Spa Director Meghan Clark.
If Saddleback is more your crew’s speed, then point your car toward Rangeley. The area’s been an outdoorsmen’s mecca since the late 1800s and still is, even if you’re just holing up at The Rangeley Inn for a skate on Haley Pond or to put your feet up by the fire and absorb the soaring views of icy lakes and glistening mountains. “This is the last of the grand hotels that were once throughout the Rangeley region,” explains owner Travis Ferland, who bought the property in 2013 and modernized it for comfort and safety while preserving the building’s historic decor. “The goal here is for guests to step away from the craziness of life, removed from everything,” says Travis. For that kind of relaxing, you may just need a good book. In which case, swing by Books, Lines & Thinkers. Minutes away by car, the 25-year-old shop is a jumble of new and used bestsellers and New England titles, and owner Wess Connally is a whiz at guiding visitors toward just the book to curl up with.
Life moves at a similarly slow pace in the small towns surrounding Sugarloaf, yet they have seriously upped their lifestyle game of late. Exhibit A: Alice & Lulus, the Alpine enclave helmed by Laura and Alexis Godin. “Sugarloaf was reminiscent of the French Alps,” says Laura, who spent her childhood in France. “We embrace that culture and its regional specialties.” To that end, they’ve put the spotlight on raclette (the traditional Swiss specialty of cheese melted over seasonal veggies and cured meats) alongside sweet and savory crepes—made of ingredients sourced from Maine farms. Chef Alexis is also known for specials like handmade pastas and braised meats. If the duck confit carbonara is on offer, don’t even think twice.
When you catch a sunny day, set out for a driving tour by way of the Maine High Peaks Barn Quilt Trail, a community-created network of quilts displayed on historic buildings and barns, painted by 600-plus children and curated by artist Saskia Reinholt. An interactive map can be found at highpeaksmaine.org. You’ll need sustenance before and after the drive, so order ahead and hit Orange Cat Cafe first. (Their “Super Love” breakfast burritos are rightfully revered.) And afterward, have your table waiting at 45 North. The upscale farmhouse pub (mismatched chairs beneath wooden ceiling beams, next to a roaring fireplace) has just welcomed chef Henry Remenapp, formerly of Local 188 in Portland, whose popular coffee-rubbed beef burgers with bacon and onion jam all but fly out the kitchen door.
About 20 minutes away in Kingfield you’ll find Orcutt Photography, the studio of renowned nature photographers Cynthia and John Orcutt. “We’re each other’s best and most honest critics,” says John. And they collaborate to achieve their aim with each photo. “The New England landscape is complex,” says Cynthia. “We’re both always trying to reach that simple graphic image capturing it.” Call ahead to visit their studio and view their work.
A two-minute drive away is nirvana for car lovers: The Stanley Museum exhibits historic Stanley Steamer cars and chronicles the lives of their inventors and makers, twins Francis Edgar Stanley and Freelan Oscar Stanley. The entire museum is an ode to Yankee ingenuity that may have you lingering, but be sure to get over to the Inn on Winter’s Hill in time for dinner (reservations required). Residence to the Winter family for three generations, it’s known as Kingfield’s Taj Mahal thanks to its Victorian architectural splendor. Now, current owner John Banta offers an ever-changing, three-course Northern Italian dinner nightly. The result is an experience that’s otherworldly in its history and culture. “Most people think of this town as a ski resort, which it certainly is,” says John. “But it’s also countless other things.”